Dark Habits (1983) marks Pedro Almodóvar’s first fully professionally made (read: studio-backed) film. While the filmmaker himself has somewhat distanced himself from it on that basis—feeling that there were too many concessions to the corporate powers—it’s hard to imagine how it could be any more Almodóvar-esque than it is. It certainly doesn’t want for the casual outrageousness of Almodóvar’s films. Let’s face it, it’s a movie about a junkie pop singer, Yolanda (Cristina Sanchez Pascual, Labyrinth of Passion), whose boyfriend (Will More) dies from a dose of strychnine-laced heroin, prompting her to seek sanctuary with an order of extremely strange nuns, “The Humiliated Redeemers.” The Mother Superior (Julieta Serrano) is a not very repressed lesbian and a fan of Yolanda—and herself a junkie. The rest of the convent isn’t exactly a hotbed of nun-like decorum either. Sister Damned (Carmen Maura, Volver) is a bongo-playing animal lover with a pet tiger. Sister Sewer Rat (Chus Lampreave, Volver) is in reality the author of a popular series of trashy novels with titles like Get Out of Here, You Swine, Lost in the Big City, Call of the Flesh and Secretaries Cry, Too. There’s also a chain-smoking, movie-fanatic priest (Manuel Zarzo), who waxes rhapsodic about Cecil Beaton’s costumes for My Fair Lady and harbors a secret. And there’s a mystery surrounding the fate of a previous obsession of the Mother Superior—not to mention a fleeting appearance by Almodóvar himself as a bus passenger. In other words, it sounds like vintage Almodóvar—and it pretty much is.
Not only is this strange tale full of Almodóvar stock players, but so much of the film’s attitude is essential Almodóvar. Cheesy sentimental songs are described as “music that really tells the truth about life.” Trash literature is not only praised (“I love sensationalist literature”), but praised for being “rubbish” (“That’s why I like them. Serious books put me to sleep”). When the Mother Superior tells Sister Sewer Rat, “Your taste leaves a lot to be desired,” the nun calmly remarks, “I never said otherwise.” These are the very building blocks of Almodóvar’s cinema, which trades in trashy, improbable stories, sentimental songs and a fondness for “bad taste.” These are the themes repeatedly explored in his subsequent films—and it’s a delightful surprise to find them laid out so clearly in this quirky black comedy.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke